Papicha comes as further confirmation of the close connection between French and North African cinema, and indeed France and North Africa. It begins as a girl gang movie, much as Celine Sciamma's Girlhood and Laurent Cantet's underrated Foxfire were, albeit with its own distinct setting: the Algiers of the late 1990s, a period with which the 42-year-old writer-director Mounia Meddour enjoys evident familiarity. (A caption informs us her film has been "freely inspired by real events".) Meddour's girls are caught between two worlds, holding the religious conservatism and fundamentalism of the wider Algeria at bay with the lipstick and Technotronic cassettes they keep in their shoulder bags. These girls have their glad rags on beneath their shawls, and Meddour makes a big deal of having them change out of one and into the other as darkness falls or dawn rises: they're supergirls, but also chameleons, having to adapt to survive, or at least to have the pleasure they seek in a society that forbids it. You can hear something of that in the way these pals switch between speaking Arabic, used in functional everyday conversation with one's elders, and the less formal, possibly aspirational French they speak with one another, a sign some already have their eyes set on pastures new. "Algeria is one big waiting room," declares the especially restless Wassila (Shirine Boutella) to her sidekick Nedjma (Lyna Khoudri), and clearly there are those who just can't wait to get out. What Meddour has given us is a small-town coming-of-age movie, except the town is an entire country.
The film's strength lies in how it allows us to discover the dimensions of this world for ourselves. For much of the film's plotless opening stretch, we're bouncing between home, school, marketplace and club in the company of characters continually pushing up against the limitations of being a woman in this society. Nedjma and Wassila are introduced changing in the back of a cramped cab; the dialogue repeatedly stresses the rules of this Algeria upon us (as one elder informs Nedjma's mother: "A married woman shouldn't show her hairline"). Our heroines have energy to burn - on dancing, boys, creative endeavours - but Meddour equally shows us how it's occasionally knocked out of them by news reports of some terrorist atrocity in the vicinity or, worse, by an atrocity itself, carefully placed within the film to catch us every bit as offguard as the characters. In retrospect, that sudden shock is a sign of shakier things to come; but once that bombshell is dropped, Papicha reshapes into an appreciable study of young women seeking both redress in all its meanings (a college fashion show sits on the horizon) and to rebuild in the wake of tragedy, either to launch themselves overseas or simply to make their homeland a brighter, more beautiful place.
In this second half, it becomes even clearer how Meddour views her characters as poster girls for adaptability - and how their status as agents of change set them in direct opposition to those who believe women should stay in the corner. (These antagonists aren't exclusively male: there's a coterie of finger-wagging sisters in nailed-down niqabs who take great delight in storming public and private spaces, like Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition, to accuse anyone and everyone of sinfulness.) Inevitably, Nedjma's fashion parade becomes a site of conflict, attracting criticism from those who assert women have no place on the catwalk, wearing pretty things, catching the eye; Meddour's rebuttal is to put her girls front and centre, privileging what they see and hear on their travels, and refusing to take her own eyes off them, her gaze equal parts concerned and flat-out captivated. As the Sciamma and Mia Hansen-Løve filmographies have borne out, that careful den-mother kind of observation can carry any film a long way in itself, and my feeling was that Papicha goes astray with the overheated dramatic developments of its final third, true as they may be to life in Algiers at this time. The girls themselves are a lively lot, aggro enough for several films over, finally irrepressible: watch them and wonder, for one, how on earth Khoudri's recognisably Arabian fierceness can be made to fit into the cutesy-poo symmetries of the upcoming Wes Anderson movie. Told you they were going places.
Papicha is now showing in selected cinemas, and available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI.